Indonesia | Economics

Monday, December 04, 2006

On polygamy

Much fuss was made over Aa Gym's second marriage last weekend. Aa Gym, for those who do not know him, is a famous Indonesian Muslim preacher. As usual, the second (or third, or fourth) marriages of public figures always generate controversies (at least in the small corner of my office).

But, really, what's wrong with polygamy if no coercion is involved and the all related parties are informed of the decision? Gary Becker and Richard Posner, two University of Chicago economists, recently has an interesting discourse on this.

Here is Becker:
The claim that polygyny is unfair to women is strange since polygyny increases the demand for women as spouses in the same way that polyandry would increase the demand for men. If men were to take multiple wives, that increases the overall competition for women compared to a situation where each man can have at most one wife. This argument against polygyny is like arguing that a way to increase the economic prospects of minorities is to place an upper bound on how many members of these groups a company can employ...

My argument for polygamy is one of principle to bring out certain fascinating issues. For, in fact, polygyny would be rare in modern societies even if fully allowed. Polygyny was popular in the past when men valued having many children. That is no longer the case, since few couples want more than three children, a number that usually can be easily attained with a single wife. So the main motivation for polygyny has vanished with the arrival of the knowledge economy where fathers as well as mothers now want a small number of educated children rather than many ill-educated offspring. Note that polygyny is rare even in those Muslim countries that allow it, such as Iran.

I conclude with two questions. Why the strong opposition to polygyny if it would be so rare? If modern women are at least as capable as men in deciding whom to marry, why does polygyny continue to be dubbed a "barbarous" practice?

And here is Posner's argument against:
As more and more men attempted to become polygamists, the "price" they would have to pay for a wife would rise, so polygamy would be a distinctly minority institution. But it would not necessarily be trivial in size or harmless in its social consequences, which would be likely to exceed those of homosexual marriage. Polygamy is banned in most advanced societies and flourishes chiefly in backward ones, particularly in Africa. This is some evidence against legalizing it.


  • I read the blog of that that Gary and Richard guy. The posts and comments in it had discussed almost all important sides of the debates. They also considered the consequences of polygamy on different scenarios in society.

    I'm actually rather surprised to see a cool headed discussion -in that blog- on such a "charged" issue..

    Anyway, I believe that polygamy should not be restricted by the government. Humans should be free to choose and they (or their children, if you consider humanity as a whole) should live the consequences of their action, whether good or bad.

    Government should simply act as enforcer of contracts between individuals who decided to enter a marital relationship with the other. If they agreed to forbid each other to enter a polygonous relationship, government should enforce such contract. If they agreed to allow a third person to enter a marital relationship, government should allow them.

    If widespread practice of polygyny disrupts society, so be it. If that practice enhances society, nice.

    By Blogger Amitz Sekali, at 12/05/2006 02:22:00 am  

  • Amitz,
    Agree with a caveat -- a system that allows polygamy must also make it easy enough for a married individual to get divorced and must ensure that affected third-parties (read: children) do not bear the burden of the couple's decisions (to enter and exit the marriage).

    Absent this, polygamy would disadvantage the weaker of the couple in a relationship (i.e., the first wife) and exert unwanted burdens and negative externalities to others -- not only the children, but also taxpayers -- who are not involved in the polygynous "contract".

    By Blogger Arya, at 12/05/2006 05:35:00 am  

  • i'm wondering if you guys think that this discussion applies to our country, given the perception (or perhaps the reality?) of what the rights of the women are, what they may or may not do?

    when some women think that they are not free to choose, and for various reasons accept that as something given, would the economic assumptions underlying efficient polygamy stated by becker hold?

    By Anonymous tirta, at 12/05/2006 11:31:00 am  

  • Tir,
    I am not sure Becker's argument applies to Indonesia (hence my comment above). But it provides a nice framework for a cool-headed discussion on what Amitz called a "charged" topic. ;-D

    By Blogger Arya, at 12/05/2006 04:02:00 pm  

  • First, forgive me if my English sounds weird. I'm pushing my English to its limit, in hope that it will improve.

    btw, is there any decent English writing course in Jakarta?

    Back to topic,

    In response to Arya caveats on the need of clean contract enforcement/breakup and isolation of damage in anticipation of legalizing polygyny:

    When formulating a regulation, government should not try to protect its constituent from all possible bad consequences arising from the implementation of that regulation. The effectiveness of such effort, in protecting citizens, is questionable because there are too many things that influence each other. What government thought as a fool-proof scenario of regulation implementation, can go awry on an unexpected part. Society is simply too complex.

    Applying the above principle to regulation on polygyny, it's unwise for government to create regulation that anticipates everything from possibilities that a spouse is under duress until psychological damages incurred on the children. It's true they are valid considerations but they should not be extensively regulated with comprehensive bullet points (on points such as spouse independency, current level satisfaction on relationship, age of children, etc.), because a comprehensive yet rigidly enforce regulation (if it's rigidly enforced) is bound to be abused once a loophole is found.

    Therefore legalization of polygyny should not be dependent on availability of protections for weaker spouse or children. Protection of weaker spouse or individual, and children should be dealt separately on different regulation. After all, even if there is no polygyny, weaker spouse and children is to be protected.

    By Blogger Amitz Sekali, at 12/06/2006 05:14:00 am  

  • i was going to write something about this in full, but finding this one here might as well join the fray. After all, it's always a pleasure to exchange with our kind host :D

    I'm annoyed with the news on AA Gym - nothing to do with the act of polygamy itself but rather but the way he responded in public.

    His public comments generally can be summarised as a) apologetic - therefore implicitly admitting the fault in polygamy and b) demeaning to his position.

    He's recognized individual with public standing, he should know that he does have some moral obligation to the public, you can't be a moral authority and at the same time simultaneously admitting your own fault and telling people to start listening to someone else. That's irresponsible and embarrassing. If he is sincere to his statement that people should look for better example, then by all means, vacate the npublic space.

    Generally it illustrates perfectly my disappointment with the lack of any moral standing - and accountability - with most public figures in this country.

    Second, on polygamy itself, amitz, if i may, gov't isn't in the business of enforcing contracts. Marriage is individual contract between two individuals. Implicitly, it recognizes exclusivity in the contract, any breach of contract therefore creates a social problem. to hide behind religious doctrines as AA Gym did is just silly - we can argue to the letters of the law/religion and i remain convinced that polygamy is very difficult to justify under both context - but that's another subject.

    and to arya, i don't really get you guys sometime, you want to be a liberal by liberating societies from any moral obligations and therefore embracing all sorts of new liberated values and at the same time you're putting the burden of child welfare etc to the gov't?

    Marriage is a contract between two individuals, a man and a woman to live together, share a life and reproduce. they know kids come with the package. any neglect will be and should be their burden and gov't already have problems with this. to shift the responsibility for the gov't to accommodate their irresponsibility is again, silly.

    By Blogger treespotter, at 12/06/2006 06:16:00 am  

  • No "coercion" is involved, eh? What options does Teteh Nini have if the act is OK'd by her religion? This reminds me of the case where some Indonesian minority groups had to provide SBKRI when applying for passports because it's the law. Just because "it's the law" does not make it right (and fair), does it?

    Speaking of Becker's conclusion, cannibalism is also rare in the modern era. But again, does it mean the practice is OK?

    By Anonymous sugi, at 12/06/2006 11:21:00 am  

  • Amitz,
    A regulation is justified only if it improves societal welfare. From an economist's point of view, private transactions are usually optimal, and only when they are not -- when there are externalities (effects, positive or negative, to parties not involved in the private transactions) -- regulations are needed.

    It is inevitable, then, that regulations be made based on a clear cost-benefit analysis of their main stakeholders.

    As for my caveat, here is my take. Anyone against an anti-polygamy regulation on the basis of the libertarian principle (it's the couple's individual choice and responsibility) should also be against regulations that make couples' marital relations (and divorces) the government's business.

    Else, the regulation is one-sided -- it promoted entry into marital relationships, but not exit. Such a regulation gives one party (usually the one most able to hide his/her true self) an unfair advantage. Non-regulation of polygamy opens up entry; regulation of divorces closes up exit.

    Of course, the next question is whether the absence of marital institution creates negative externalities that necessitate government regulations. But I guess, that is a question for another day.

    I want to avoid having the government take over the burden of children from failed marriages -- which is why, if we were to take the course of non-regulation, there needs to be a system or an arrangement to avoid making these children the burden of society.

    Which is another way to say that if we cannot do this and these children will indeed burden others not involved in the marital relationship(s), there might be a case for an anti-polygamy regulation.

    As for Aa Gym, I don't care so much about him. I also disagree that public figures should always exemplified the good in people. The public needs to know that their heroes are humans too, so that they learn to listen more to themselves instead of their heroes.

    What option does Ninih have? Well, Trie Utami refused to let her husband remarry and opted for a divorce. (Although Trie Utami perhaps has a greater access to legal assistance than Ninih, but I don't know this for a fact).

    That Ninih chooses to value her religious principles (or the approval of her peers) over the more pragmatic alternative (assuming that she thinks her husband's polygynous relationship a bad thing) is an individual choice that is rational for her, reflecting her cost of partaking in a particular kind of society or community.

    Isn't this the same reason that motivates martyrdom in many religions?

    By Blogger Arya, at 12/06/2006 05:40:00 pm  

  • To Treespotter,
    Well, I think government should be given authority to enforce a contract. If individuals create a contract involving each other, and someone abandon it, shouldn't government be given authority to punish people who abandon that contract?

    Of course we can talk about privatization of enforcement agency, but that's another matter entirely :-)

    To sugi,
    I'm no expert in current Islamic law or Civil law in Indonesia so I tentatively agree they seem not fair enough to the weaker spouse. But remember to separate the causes of unfairness, which is either from the law itself or from the culture of people.

    "Weakness" of spouse caused by culture should not be blamed on law. "Weakness" of spouse caused by culture should be fixed by improving the spouse resilient, not by over-protecting the spouse from possibilities of advantageous contracts..

    If someone is willing to marry to improve his/her economic condition, or if (s)he love him/her so much, and decided to grant his/her spouse to take a second spouse, so be it.

    There should be a before married requirement to explicitly declare whether you allow you spouse to take a second/third/fourth/fifth husband/wife. Such declaration may be change while in marriage.

    One thing for sure, if polygyny ever become a widespread practice, society will change a lot.

    By Blogger Amitz Sekali, at 12/06/2006 07:15:00 pm  

  • arya,

    "That Ninih chooses to value her religious principles (or the approval of her peers) over the more pragmatic alternative (assuming that she thinks her husband's polygynous relationship a bad thing) is an individual choice that is rational for her, reflecting her cost of partaking in a particular kind of society or community."

    what if, for argument's sake, aa gym and teh ninih were americans -- and, being an american, teh ninih would have rationally opted for divorce?

    now if this is indeed the case, then by comparison we may conclude that her being an indonesian somehow doesn't allow her to exercise the rationality she would have had otherwise. would this fictive reasoning argue for a paternalistic role from the indonesian government?

    i guess i'm still not able to see how economics can provide justifiable analyses of religious related issues such as this. economics is about rationality (and therefore irrationality). religion is about arationality.

    By Anonymous tirta, at 12/07/2006 02:05:00 am  

  • Tirta,
    Let me answer by referring you to this quote.

    By Blogger Arya, at 12/07/2006 02:24:00 am  

  • I also disagree that public figures should always exemplified the good in people. The public needs to know that their heroes are humans too, so that they learn to listen more to themselves instead of their heroes.

    Arya, i'm sorry to disagree, but really, that's a lot of nonsense. Everyone's human, we all know that and we don't need any further proof of that.

    That being said, public figures have responsibilities. just like you as parents are required to set certain standard of conduct for your kids etc. AA Gym is particularly stupid since he's supposedly a leader with moral authority.

    People do hold AA Gym to different standard compared to Britney Spears or Ayu Azhari or Bill Clinton or the Pope or that Free Willy guy. What they do have public consequences and they should know this, it's part of being a public figure, it comes with the package.

    By Blogger treespotter, at 12/07/2006 02:31:00 am  

  • Arya and Tirta,

    Let's talk about the cost-benefit analysis of legalizing polygyny then. I'll throw the first ball first.

    A major advantage is the redistribution of wealth from the rich (or the one who has many spouses) to the poorer (or the one who must compete with others of the same gender). With polygyny,
    1. The rich have relatively high control on how and to whom the wealth is spent thus making them more willing to redistribute it.
    2. The poor have a relatively higher chance to secure more and stabler wealth, by virtue of being a husband or wife. Compare this to convincing government that you deserve to be subsidized..

    The disadvantageous are:
    1. Increase complexity in law and administration.
    2. Relatively unknown psychological impacts to polygonous family.

    In consideration, how widespread this polygyny practice is, might change the influence of the above points. For instance, maybe if it's not widespread enough, the effect of redistribution is very small whereas the disruption to society is negligible.

    By Blogger Amitz Sekali, at 12/07/2006 05:47:00 am  

  • i don't think we can do cost-benefit analysis without empirical data. is there any 'well-being' study of polygamous families? (i don't like the term 'well-being', but you know what i mean: more income, less stress, quality time, etc). i'm sure you agree that the issue is more than just about wealth (re)distribution and admin complexity -- which are the easiest to measure.

    in particular, i'm thinking about the kahneman et al. happiness study in science magazine, 30 june 2006 (, there are, among others, variables of 'alone' and 'married'. i wonder if 'polygamous' is added.

    By Anonymous tirta, at 12/07/2006 11:35:00 am  

  • T/S
    Time changes, so does a public figure's public image. If Britney, Madonna, Zainuddin MZ, Inneke Koesherawati can change their public images, why couldn't Aa?

    And yes, it seems we'll always disagree about the whole "responsibility to the public" thing. I don't care much of him, but I think in general, it's better to admit upfront the way he did then pretending to be someone he was not and then get caught red-handed, the way Rhoma Irama did.

    Why only polygyny (one husband, many wives)? Why not the general polygamy?

    To take it a towards a more general direction, why not consider the abolition of marriage as an institution or, at least, a government-sanctioned institution?

    By doing this, we get all the advantages you just mentioned, without the disadvantages. Do you agree?

    Yes, I agree: Insofar as we don't have data, it will remain a mere hypothesis. But a good hypothesis can often worth a thousand data points, no? ;-D [and a good hypothesis drives the choice of data to be collected].

    By Blogger Arya, at 12/08/2006 03:16:00 am  

  • dang,

    I thought polygyny is the more general statement, not polygamy. Yeah, all my comments above are meant polygamy.

    Back to topic, I only see few advantages of polygamous marriage, which will also be available by abolishing marriage institution. So please clarify further what you mean by abolishing marriage institution will give the advantage of polygamous marriage.

    Anyway, I think that married institution should be restricted minimally, meaning that government should limit what they won't allow in a marriage contract.
    On the other hand, married should only be approved when an evidence of an explicit discussion on important items exist. A recorded conversation or short essays can count as evidence.

    These important items are:
    1. who will stay at home and who will work,
    2. how do you distribute household income,
    3. in what religion/style will they raise their children,
    4. what counts as infidelity and what are the punishments,
    5. how many additional husbands/wife one may take,
    6. what will happen with children/wealth when divorce happen,
    7. etc.

    They may put what they agreed on in writing if they choose to.

    Although the arrangement aboves will increase government "interference" on marriage institution, at the same time it force husband/wife to be responsible to themselves. What they had discussed on can be used as guidelines in court when dispute arise.

    They may update the discussion on items at anytime.

    By Blogger Amitz Sekali, at 12/08/2006 05:53:00 am  

  • well, my point being, if he really think he shouldn't lead, then STEP AWAY!! Why is he still doing the preaching? I don't base this on the polygamy, it's his own words, "People should look elsewhere,"

    we can hardly look elsewhere when he still appears on the telly can we?

    Britney Spears walks without panties, but she isn't pretending she's a fashion guru, is she?

    By Blogger treespotter, at 12/08/2006 07:57:00 am  

  • (My take, just posted elsewhere... ...)


    At 12/08/2006 10:26:09 AM, johnorford said...
    Polygyny happens in societies when men can get away with it, it's a hold-up problem pure and simple, wives have /no/ options but to go along with it.

    I imagine societies where polygany is common, are also extremely prone to domestic abuse. E.g. a husband can get away with abusing his wives, knowing they have no other options - again a hold up problem.


    By Blogger johnorford, at 12/08/2006 04:24:00 pm  

  • Tirta,

    We can define well-being as function of endorphin concentration and time.. It's plausible but imagine the social consequences if such practice is widespread... :-)


    Yes, I think one reason polygamy is not common in most advanced society because there is less compelling reasons for people to be polygami-ed, whereas in 'backward' society there is more compelling reasons.

    But my point is, 'weak' people should be given the chance to sacrifice him/herself in exchange of better social standing or financial condition. Outlawing polygamy will deny them the chance to have market force work in favor of them.

    Additionally, outlawing polygamy will deny the 'weak' of legal protection when they're involved in a polygamous relationship since their legal status will not be recognized.

    By Blogger Amitz Sekali, at 12/08/2006 07:24:00 pm  

  • Amitz,
    On dissolving the institution of marriage, the contract you mentioned was what I was talking about.

    Abstracting from the reality of contract enforcement in Indonesia and ignoring details on the contract items, I like the general idea that when two individuals want to build a home, they can strike a "minimum contract", negotiable throughout their marriage, and enforceable by law.

    If they want, they can build a home without the contract, but they will lose the legal protection from the state. Now, in the contract, they can very well state what to do with regards of infidelity, taking an extra wife, and so on.

    By Blogger Arya, at 1/01/2007 07:13:00 pm  

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